From time to time I meet a baby who has a big impact on me. Harry has mild cerebral palsy, which isn’t the first thing you notice about him, but it’s there. When he swims with me, I’m really struck by the fact that swimming is a great leveller, and what joy he gets from swimming.
Harry’s a very cute, cheeky 3 1/2 year old. He’s got curly brown hair, dark eyes with a twinkle that makes him look like he’s in on a very funny joke. He loves swimming, and has mild cerebral palsy. And that’s how you see Harry, with cerebral palsy low down on the list.
In the water, the physical manifestation of cerebral palsy, or any physical or motor delay or disability, is much harder to spot than on land. The water fully supports the body, allowing a full range of movement. This means that a child who can’t stand unaided, for example, can kick just a freely as a child who’s able to walk and run.
This makes the water a wonderful leveller. I can’t think of any other physical activity where a child with cerebral palsy could participate alongside more able-bodied children. And this is so good for their confidence and self-esteem, and for their parents too.
I once taught a boy with Downs Syndrome whose dad said that swimming “helped his social interaction with other children. Physically he is behind, but I have found myself surprised with how well he is progressing as the course goes on, and more importantly how much he enjoys it.”
Harry’s mum does have to give him a bit more support with certain activities such as standing on the side and jumping in, but there’s nothing he can’t do. And that’s the important bit. Watching his confidence grow with his ability is an absolute joy.
The other, rather incredible side is physical ability. The warm water has a few magical qualities that help people with conditions like cerebral palsy get stronger, more coordinated, more flexible and have a great cardio-vascular workout.
While it manifests differently from person to person, cerebral palsy often causes motor malfunction characterised by muscle stiffness. The warmth of the pool helps relax the muscles, while the weightless from the water’s buoyancy alleviates the stress caused by gravity. In this rather lovely state, you add the resistance of the water, and you can move freely, without risk of falling over, to exercise, strengthen muscles and increase flexibility.
An old school friend of mine is highly specialised Paediatric Physiotherapist. When I asked her what she thought about swimming for children with cerebral palsy, I was quite taken aback by how emphatically she encourages swimming. “It gives them the opportunity to strengthen muscles, increase range of movement, move the two sides of the body work symmetrically and exercise the heart and lungs to a degree that may not be possible on land,” she said.
That symmetry of movement is also significant. Swimming helps developing brains make important connections and integrate primitive and postural reflexes – a process that can be inhibited by physical conditions like cerebral palsy. This movement helps overcome learning and developmental delays and challenges including ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, Autistic Spectrum Disorders and cerebral palsy.
In the last 2 1/2 years, I’ve seen Harry become more and more physically able. He now wears leg braces, and has recently had Botox treatment in his leg to help him plant his feet properly. On Tuesday, he walked into the pool room for his lesson, which made my heart soar.
While I become attached to all the children I teach, watching a child grow and develop beyond a limitation is inspirational, be it nervousness, prematurity, or physical or learning challenges. It makes me want to learn more about aqua therapy, and to spread the word: if your baby has a condition, if they were premature, or they’re just a bit delayed in reaching their milestones, look up Water Babies, call them, talk it over and go swimming!
Harry starts school in September. I’m going to miss him! I hope that by being his swimming teacher, I have helped him through his early years. He has helped inspire my understanding of how swimming helps babies with extra needs.
To find out more about aqua therapy for children and adults with cerebral palsy, click here.